Time travel is a topic that is discussed in science fiction a great deal. You have movies, magazines, short stories, and novels all talking about what seems like an impossible trajectory. I’ve been fascinated by the notion of time, cycles, and the future since I was a little boy. Stephen King has dabbled in the notion of time, and this book doesn’t exactly try to be science based, and honestly, many books don’t. This is purely historical fiction, and yet, King does a great job of drawing you in with an incredible premise, and a notion of changing the past, in order to preserve a new future. Stephen King’s “11/22/63” makes you think about Einstein’s universal time constructs and turns them into a larger story that would make Rod Serling smile. The best books are the ones that make us think about ourselves, our world, and are rooted in a universal truth about what scares us, what makes us proud, and what we love as well (Mar, Oatley, Djikic, and Mullin, 2011). Stephen King presents a narrative that is simple enough, stop the murder of John F. Kennedy, then spins out of control as we realize that life is not black and white, and we are all given to tragedy. There are rules to everything, and even in time travel fiction, the construct is not freewheeling. Through the reading of this book, I reflected on my own personal world, to try and make sense of why this book impacted me so harshly upon reading it, and why the memory of the end is still vivid as well.
We discuss time travel a lot. I say we, as a collective view of the world, because it’s a topic that you no doubt talked about with your friends as well. In those discussions we always think about the ethics of it all. Ethicists discussing what we should do and what we don’t do and why, and the larger construct of time travel doesn’t get spoken about. Let’s assume that we took Bergmann’s principle of ethics in regard to the notion of the better good for everyone, what would you do? Everyone usually comes down to a simple idea, kill baby Hitler. If we kill Hitler and he is not born, then we end up with a positive future, right? History asks these questions, but honestly, that doesn’t stop the other chain reactions that occur in history, as tragedy still continues to rise. The ethical notion of helping the most people possible would rely heavily on how you judged the outcome and your sacrifice, and Bergmann goes into length discussing that in his work on “American Ethics”, which of course is a nationalistic view point (Borgmann, 2010).
Stephen King sets out to think of ethics too, but he doesn’t think of Hitler, perhaps that’s too easy Instead, he aims his sights on a very specific and problematic issue in the United States, and that’s the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That is when we are introduced to Jake Epping, a high school teacher that is friends with a diner owner and is introduced to the notion of a wormhole that is sending the owner back in time. AL Templeton, the diner owner, tells Epping that he needs to stop the murder of the president, and while he is skeptical at first, a trip back in time and back forward proves to showcase that he is not just telling tall tales. The thing about King’s universe of time travel is that the universe pushes back, and our Jake Epping has to confront that head on, even if it means getting involved in things that aim to kill him off before he can do anything close to being the hero of 1963.
There are plenty of books on the death of John F. Kennedy, and there are a lot of people that have discussed what happened, what didn’t happen, and what could have happened. Stephen King knows this, and he decides to take you on a history lesson at every turn. King doesn’t go to point A to point B, which is what I would have done. When has life done that, anyway? I think about my quest to get a master’s degree, and how I started with a pursuit of the Humanities, only to get into a U.S. History degree, and finally finished with that discipline. Now, as I chase a doctorate, I think back and understand that there are often few straight lines in our lives, and King plays that to his advantage. In doing so, he challenges you as a reader, and if you’re a history buff, you will want to fact check King. I did. He is accurate in his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald, and he creates a rich tapestry of the 1960s, and different nuances that some argued are too on the nose, and yet I think they are right on.
I fell in love with Sadie. The love interest in this book is so fantastic, and the pain she has to endure due to Epping not being able to tell her the truth is hard. It creates a lavish display of what truth and consequences are when you have to lie to survive. Sadie’s character is simple at first, then deepens as you go through the novel, and really showcases that we are all flawed, no matter how beautiful we may be. King’s characterization of Sadie made me reflect on my own past loves, and how I would go back to try, and honestly, I’d find out that the loves of my past, the ones in my imagination are nothing more than flawed human beings like everyone else. King asks you if love is really the universal passion that will make you do stupid things? Epping has to decide to help others, chase love, or leave the past alone, and it’s seriously one of the hardest parts of the book to put yourself into the picture. I imagined my life as Epping, and wondered what I would do? I asked myself often, how much do I love any one person? How much do I love people? Epping has to decide that, and really question the larger ethical elements that guys like Bergmann debate all the time.
11/22/63 is a book I won’t forget any time soon. The love I have for this Sadie character resonates with me to this day. It’s something that a lot of scholars discuss, this sort of falling in love with love culture (Evans, 1998). Even though I’ve had time to process, I still think about her, and how she may exist in my real world. Her essence being in the people that choose to meet me or say they love me, it’s all just odd in a way, I guess. I recommend this book, and yet, I doubt anyone that isn’t a King fan is going to take me up on it.
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Djikic, M., & Mullin, J. (2011). Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading. Cognition & emotion, 25(5), 818-833.
Latham, Betty. “Down the Rabbit Hole 11/22/63: Stephen King’s Historical Changeling.” Linguaculture 2016, no. 1 (2016): 27-33.